Watched and watchers

by Helene Wong / 29 December, 2007
The best films of 2007.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. It's not a new story - a watcher becoming obsessed with the person they're watching - but this finely executed unfolding of the converging fates of a Stasi agent and a famous playwright before the fall of the Berlin Wall is thrilling, intelligent and never predictable. A multi-faceted gem that reminds us how cinema can tell a big story with the sparest of dialogue, acting, composition and design and still deliver emotional power.

THE NAMESAKE, directed by Mira Nair. Nair trades the high colour and exuberance of her previous work (Monsoon Wedding) for blue filters and the sadness of displacement in this immigrant story of middle-class Bengalis transplanted to New York. It's not gloomy, though; the visuals are infused with deep, rich meaning and the lovely circle of the narrative holds us close to its heart all through its moving journey.

BABEL, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Since Amores Perros, Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga have been at the forefront of this decade's experimentation with self-contained stories linked in unexpected ways, from Traffic to The Dead Girl. Babel's four families and three countries enlarge this to span the globe, showing intimately, and sometimes harrowingly, how noise and silence can equally contribute to talking past one another personally, culturally and politically.

AFTER THE WEDDING, directed by Susanne Bier. There might be a melo-dramatic air to the story, but its unexpected plot turns and character revelations make it a fresh and engrossing watch. Performances are pitch-perfect; especially surprising is Mads Mikkelsen's aid worker, subverting his bad-guy typecasting. The Danish Bier directed last year's Brothers, so she knows how to burn family tension slowly and suspensefully. A small story that gathers substance and heart at each turn.

ONCE, directed by John Carney. One of the most enchanting and bittersweet love-stories in a long while. Its appeal lies in how it plays out the evolution of a cautious will-they-won't-they friendship between an Irish busker and a Czech musician, and then transforms it into a musical partnership every bit as sexy and joyful as a real romance. Dublin's fair city provides the backdrop, and an engaging folk-rock soundtrack helps knit together humour and poignancy in this short, sweet, simple tale.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS, directed by Isabel Coixet. Sarah Polley continues her brilliant career with this portrayal of a deaf woman caring for a burns victim on an oil rig. Rather than being hobbled by the character's almost complete silence, she effortlessly mines the subtext and builds our curiosity in readiness for a pivotal monologue that's riveting in delivery and deva-stating in content. A deliberately restrained treatment that takes its time and draws meaning from its unique location and every one of its characters.

RATATOUILLE, directed by Brad Bird. There's almost too much to take in at first sitting, but it'll be worth coming back for seconds. Pixar's you-dirty-rat movie is a helter-skelter slapstick ride through the sewers, kitchens and haute-cuisine culture of Paris, polishing every visual detail and plucking out useful homilies on the way. With as much for adults to "get" as the kids, you come away with the feeling that these guys really, really love their jobs.

THE QUEEN, directed by Stephen Frears. Its strength comes not simply from the fact that it's a quiet, sober, uncluttered examination of a hysterical event, or that the script and the cast, led stunningly by Helen Mirren, treat their characters with respect. What it does is clear away all the babble around the monarchy and give insight, albeit speculatively, into an ordinary human being trapped in an extraordinary life, while leaving her with her dignity. Which is good, because she didn't ask for the damn job.

THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, directed by Fatih Akin. Of Turkish origins, German film-maker Akin makes films about the migrant experience and the vexed relationship between these two countries, achieving an almost epic universality in the process. This latest, about human connection and the bonds of family, relates - Iñárritu-like - three separate stories ultimately linked through coincidence. There's economy and fluidity of narrative, compelling visuals and a strong cast that includes the very welcome reappearance of the great Hanna Schygulla.

DEEP WATER, directed by Louise Osmond & Jerry Rothwell. What was he thinking? This documentary attempts, and succeeds, to answer that question about Donald Crowhurst, the British amateur sailor who set off to circumnavigate the globe, solo and non-stop, in 1968. Racing against more experienced and better prepared competitors, Crowhurst's tale is of tragedy on the high seas - psychological rather than physical - and this is a sympathetic and suspenseful telling drawn from a trove of verbal and visual sources, giving an almost epic scale to an act equal parts audacity and folly.

Best of the small films: Kissy Kissy, twenty-something anxieties played out in the flats and streets of Wellington, with camerawork that made the city look familiar and new all at once.

Best title goes to How Is Your Fish Today?, a strangely successful docudrama treatment of a fictional journey to China's northernmost village by Xiaolu Guo. Beautifully photographed and open to broad social and political interpretation.

In Exiled, Johnnie To smoothly plays all the expected notes of a Hong Kong gangster movie - artful gun action, a baby in jeopardy, themes of loyalty and honour, the peerless Anthony Wong - but his screenwriters should earn most applause for funniest signal-to-start-shooting line: "I'll check the shark fins."

The best of the Chinese films, though, is Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, upstaging soulless costume extravaganzas such as The Banquet with its social realism, stunning framing and composition, and less-is-more approach to two simple domestic stories played out against the upheavals of the Three Gorges Dam project. With its near-silent observation of the latter's destruction of place and displacement of people, and a few cheekily surreal touches, it says more about the passing of the past than any tourist cruise could hope to convey.

Best of the difficult films would have to be - no surprises here - Inland Empire. Infuriating as David Lynch might be with his distorted narratives and visual non-sequiturs, there's a familiarity about its eerie, dream-like ambience and recurring motifs that's oddly comforting. This might be one of his more puzzling efforts, but its vivid images aren't easy to forget.

And best horror? That would be The Descent - or, Femmes Go Feral in a Cave. A fresh take and really very scary.

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